Carol Brightman on the 1960s
Posted on Jan 3, 2008
She believes that poetry and poets are supposed to be beyond gender and race, background and religion—“outside of self and time.” It would take a new kind of experience, far from home, to help her understand that she would have to enter these realms before she could move beyond them. Meanwhile, Sherman starts reading her love poems about a woman to a larger audience. Grace Paley and Robert Nichols, among others, encourage her. Much later, in 1975, Denise Levertov, who had disapproved of her (gay) images, would publish Sherman’s “Amerika” in the American Poetry Review.
In the next couple of years Sherman finishes a master’s thesis in philosophy, starts teaching at the Free University, works at the classified ad department of the Village Voice, and has a play reviewed. She also reviews plays for the Voice and is asked to review books and plays for a new magazine, which culminates in her becoming co-founder and editor of IKON. Between February and July 1967 her life and the contents of the magazine begin to radically change. Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale start the Black Panther Party in Oakland; Haight-Ashbury is in full swing; draft resistance gains strength and momentum; and in New York, 10,000 people take part in the first Be-In in Central Park, and 400,000 march against the war from Central Park to the United Nations. Politics comes to her a little later than to Wilkerson, but she isn’t a political person, not yet.
The Vietnam War begins to escalate along with the anti-war movement. Almost every story, poem, article in the third issue of IKON is related to the conflict. Grace Paley’s “The Sad Story About The Six Boys About To Be Drafted In Brooklyn,” Robert Nichols’ “Vietnam Journal,” Jean-Paul Sartre’s Inaugural Address delivered at the Bertrand Russell War Crimes Tribunal (yes, the same), in which he proclaims that no matter what decisions the “trial” reaches, “the judges are everywhere; they are the peoples of the world, and in particular the American people.” Margaret Randall, living in Mexico, writes about the eighth anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, and Sherman reports on something called the Angry Arts Against the War.
These were not just pieces in a magazine, Sherman reflects. “Each represented an activity in which we were either directly or indirectly engaged.” Something similar happened with Viet-Report, the anti-war magazine I started in 1965. We began by running pieces by experts, then found that the experts couldn’t tell us what we needed to know and we had to research and write them ourselves; and then join teach-ins, give speeches, travel to North and South Vietnam, march, and march some more. When the war came home, we were involved in that, too. Our last issue, in the summer of 1968, was subtitled, pompously enough, “Colonialism and Liberation in America.”
The second part of Sherman’s memoir, “Cuba and After, 1968-1971,” reads like a different book. It’s no longer about herself but, at first, about Old Havana, Santeria (the Afro-Cuban religious tradition), the efforts to form a New Man (or “new human,” as Sherman says). Her roommate in Havana is the Spanish-speaking Margaret Randall, who seems to know everyone. Sitting one afternoon in the lobby of her hotel, Sherman begins talking to a young poet from North Vietnam. Upon hearing she is a poet from New York, he jumps up and returns with a dogeared book of poems, his favorite, Walt Whitman, and a poem he has written for a Cuban newspaper about Whitman and Vietnam.
When she and three members of SDS meet with a small delegation of Vietnamese, they are praised for standing up against the war, and for their bravery. They protest that compared to what the Vietnamese are going through nothing they’ve done is worth talking about. “No,” one of them responds. “You don’t understand. We have to fight. We have no choice. You don’t, yet you support us. Even against your own government. ... You support us by choice.” Sherman understands “for the first time how important it was to organize from a people’s pride and not from anger or guilt.”
After she returns home, the art staff bolts from the magazine, her health begins to break down and the FBI initiates an investigation. The bookstore where IKON was produced has La Mama on one side and a transvestite nightclub that was rumored to be run by the Mob on the other. The doorman is a retired police sergeant, and Sherman and some co-workers chat with him and give him small gifts. No trouble there—that was how it worked in New York.
She writes Rene Vallejo, Fidel Castro’s personal physician, whom she had earlier befriended, and in December 1968 he asks her to come to Cuba again for a stay in the National Hospital. We never learn exactly what’s the matter with her, but after a month Vallejo declares her cured and promises a surprise meeting with “the prime minister.” One warm evening, she is picked up at nearly midnight by a uniformed guard in a jeep and taken to a huge stadium outside the city. Soldiers with submachine guns stand behind pillars. She is led into a gymnasium, where a dozen middle-aged men in make-shift shorts and tank-top uniforms are playing a desultory game of basketball. Hours go by. It is now well past 2 o’clock in the morning. Finally, Castro enters with Vallejo and is pointed in her direction. She notices his eyes, “radiating isolation.” She thanks him for her care and gives him some funny hospital details, which make him laugh.
During the conversation, Sherman mentions that “Vallejo had said to me that they expected reform [in Cuba] not revolution,” and that “they had great hopes if [John] Kennedy had lived that some accommodation could have been reached.” Given the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, this is interesting. He also remarks wistfully that “government and business could solve so many problems if only they gave an inch or two, but they wouldn’t even do that.” Those were the days.
Sherman returns to New York after a two-month tour of the island, grateful to Vallejo, who invites her back next year. But he would suffer a stroke on the basketball court, of all places, and died at 44. A tall man, taller than Fidel. Along with Celia Sanchez, Castro’s comrade in arms in the Sierra Maestra and later his secretary, Vallejo was, Sherman believes, the only person Fidel completely trusted.
This is not a thrilling book. It all happened so long ago, and Sherman fails, for the most part, to make it new. At the end, however, she observes that the 1960s was not an isolated era, “but part of an historical continuum of struggle and cultural regeneration, moving backwards ... through the civil rights movement in the Fifties, progressive movements during the great depression, the labor movement, the first meeting of the NAACP in 1909 to untold heroic acts against slavery ... to the revolutionary movement out of which this country was born.” It is an important thought, one to paste over your desk while writing. But, alas, none of these authors has kept it in mind.
It would have made a difference if Wilkerson, Oglesby and Sherman had moved back, at least once, from the personal stories that compel them to reflect on these earlier episodes of radical change in American history—for they are not alone, far from it. But by virtue of the kind of memoirs they’ve written, they’re still rooting about in the dense undergrowth of the 1960s and 1970s, throwing out this bit, keeping that part. They do not think about whether earlier political movements form a continuum going backward or forward, and, if forward, where they stand in the onrushing process to rid the world of American bellicosity and hubris.
In many ways, these three books are the memoirs of activists who have shed the carapace of their old organizational selves but are still at pains to understand who they were and what they’ve become. None of them renounce their earlier selves—except Wilkerson, a little—and Wilkerson is the only one who tries to make a connection with the future. She says it best: “When I look back on the early years of my life, the tremendous accomplishments, the ignorant and arrogant mistakes, and the losses, I ask, ‘For the sake of what?’
“For the sake of a future, I hope.”
Carol Brightman is the author of several books, including “Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World,” “Sweet Chaos: The Grateful Dead’s American Adventure” and, most recently, “Total Insecurity: The Myth of American Omnipotence.”
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